Bellingham poet Robert Lashley is probably best known for his stage presence. Lashley comes from the spoken word scene, and he is one of the best readers in the region: there’s a moment in every one of his performances when he shifts from mild-mannered stage patter to the poet with that voice, and it’s always a bracing moment.
You can always tell when someone in the audience has never attended a Lashley reading before because they rear up when that voice makes itself known. When Lashley reads, he gets loud, and when he gets loud, he starts spitting truth all around the room. He reads poems about some “motherfucker at the club” who tried to start something with Lashley’s cousin, and his rage at the “Maxim magazine and Axe Body Spray” motherfucker is raw and real.
Lashley demands your attention. His performance style is part fire-and-brimstone preacher, part aggrieved literary nerd, and part Captain America. You can’t help but be moved, to want to follow him wherever he leads. And it’s easy to get swept up in that voice, to forget the poet behind it, to lose sight of the fact that those words have a writer, and that writer is, in fact, very good at what he does.
Lashley’s second book of poems, Up South, is a reminder that Lashley is a writer of poems, and more than just that voice. Even more than in his first collection, The Homeboy Songs, Lashley is showing us what he knows. Up South is a collection with roots deep inside the tradition of poetry. Lashley evokes mythology and Biblical stories and classic poets here — not in a showy way, but rather because he understands that no poet writes in a vacuum, that every poet is in conversation with every single poet who came before.
The poems in Up South respond to and play with poems throughout history. The first poem in the book has “a nod to Yeats.” Others parody work by Amiri Baraka and fork off the first two lines of a poem by Wislawa Szymborska. In other poems, Lashley warns the reader that a poem “flip[s] a line from Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’” and “lift[s] two lines from ‘The Hollow Men.’” It’s not stolid and stuffy like a bad comparative literature course led by a too-serious teaching aide. Lashley isn’t showing off here; he’s just taking the classics out for a spin, using the rhythms and echoes of history to make his point.
These are deeply personal poems, steeped in memoir and Lashley’s perspective. He is working through and with and against trauma and anger and loss. One poem is titled “To Thomas, on the Day He Found God and Apologized for Making Me Give Him Head,” and the word “bitter” appears in the poem ten times over the course of 22 lines. “Your pleas here are hollow: I am only a man,” Lashley writes to someone who has newly found religion and is seeking to retrofit his crimes into a Christian redemption fable. Lashley sees this man seeking forgiveness, and he notes, “Bitter is the sound of your jubilee.”
Up South is full of music. Some dirges, some gospel, some blues, some hip-hop. One poem refers to American folk character Stagger Lee and hums with the refrain:
Death’s taking a hold of me.
Death’s taking a hold of me.
The book is sick with death and damnation and Revelations, culminating with a mammoth meditation on violence called “The Gun Solstice: An Anti-Journey” that floats through a city at night, when police prey on black men and everyone preys on everyone else, beneath a sky that is “a liturgy of lead.” Lashley warns the reader that “God has remembered nothing but crimes.” A deity who looks at humanity and sees nothing but violence and violation is a supreme being to be feared, for sure.
But like any good mass, Lashley leads us through the darkness to some kind of redemption in Up South. The first stanza of the last poem, “When God Lets My Body Be,” which he notes is “after the E.E. Cummings poem of the same name,” goes:
When god lets my body be
from each ripped wound shall sprout a tree
of fruit that exists only for you.
My rosary beads will make you a laurel
of crowns, medallions
and alleyway garlands
no one but us can see. .
We hurt. We bleed. We suffer. But the scars and the pain make us who we are, and those who love us, love us for who we are. If hell is other people, heaven is one specific other person — someone who can see us as we are, and who allows us to see them as they are.
If you have a chance to see Robert Lashley read in person, you should absolutely take that chance. He’s got that voice, and once you see him read, you’ll always remember it. But even if you’ve never seen Lashley read, even if you never will see Lashley read, you should pick up Up South. The whole book speaks right at you in that voice, slapped down in ink on paper. Even if the poems stay on the page unspoken, this book sings.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant